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Handy Handbooks

November 04, 1996|JENNIFER PENDLETON SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Employee handbooks. When was the last time you looked at yours? Chances are, not since the day you were hired. Even then, you probably didn't bother to open it.

Handbooks used to be simple road maps to the workplace, reference guides to turn to only when a fine point of company policy needed to be checked.

They're still a collection of company rules, regulations and procedures with a smattering of management philosophy. But increasingly, companies are weighting these documents with more "thou shalt nots" than the Old Testament.

Why the hard stance? It may be a sign of the times. "There's little trust between employees and bosses today. Instead, there's skepticism and cynicism," said Dr. Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica-based psychiatrist and author who serves as a management consultant.

Companies are rethinking their employee handbooks at a time of great uncertainty in the workplace. Corporate downsizing has increased worker mistrust. Increased diversity, including multiple classifications of workers--contract, part-time professional, temporary, etc.--have muddied the rules for workers and bosses. At the same time, companies have often learned the hard way that they must protect themselves from workers' lawsuits, which can be financially devastating.

Executives walk a fine line when trying to spell out policies clearly, and rankling readers may be inevitable. "Some employees take offense to an employee handbook jampacked with legal disclaimers," said Goulston. "It's almost like the company is saying, 'We're going to expect trouble.' "

However, lawyers and human resources experts say a clear-cut company manual is simply smart business in the litigious times in which we live, and serving it up in plain language is actually a favor to workers. A straightforward, accurate and informative manual should be high on the priority list of any business.

"We tell every single client that one of the first things they need is an employee handbook," said attorney Ken Florence, partner in a small specialty firm in Los Angeles that represents companies in labor and employment disputes. "It's the way to consistency and fairness. There's no question that having a handbook will reduce the number of claims."

Too often, though, employee handbooks fall short. Here's a brief look at common shortcomings and potential pitfalls.

* Garbage in, garbage out.

Generic software programs for handbook text can be a problem. Many fail to address legal distinctions between companies of different sizes, or take varying state laws into account.

For example, in California, employers must pay overtime if a workday exceeds eight hours. But there's no such law in most other states. Federal law requires overtime only when 40 hours are exceeded in the workweek.

Another common error is to blindly follow another company's handbook as a model.

"There is no one boilerplate employee handbook that works for all companies," said Laurie Owyang, president of Humanasaurus, a Los Angeles-based human resources consulting firm.

* Out-of-date information.

Labor laws are always changing, so a big challenge for companies is to keep employee handbooks current. Some companies have introduced loose-leaf binders so they can easily insert revisions.

* Just because you say so doesn't make it legal.

Handbooks fall down when they set out policies that contradict the laws of the land. Most commonly at odds with statutes are employee benefit provisions.

Sarah Rios, staff consultant in the Los Angeles office of the Employers Group, says companies often err when stating time-off policies--easy to do in the contemporary workplace composed of workers of varying classifications.

For instance, companies frequently state in the handbook that a part-time worker is not entitled to company benefits. But even a part-timer is eligible for family leave benefits if he or she has been on the payroll for 12 months and worked 1,250 hours, according to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. This applies to companies with 50 or more employees operating within a 75-mile radius.

Company handbooks are about laying out the rights of both parties. A plainly worded document that addresses conditions of employment is the best for everyone.

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